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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Err…what thinking skills?

Rather than encourage critical thinking, our educators are only too happy to insist students think like them and do like them.
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Professor Tajuddin Rasdi, a former senior academic from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia hit the bulls eye when he said: “If the purpose of a university is to influence people and expect students not to do things that are not approved, there would be no progress and you will always be left behind.”
His statement, although referring to the recent disciplinary action taken by a local public university against its students for their involvement in a public rally, holds true for other situations as well, for I believe “brainwashing” begins inside lecture halls.
I would like to relate an incident at my daughter’s university, which took place earlier this year.
It was the start of the fourth semester and my daughter, for the first time, was scheduled to attend a compulsory Thinking Skills class meant for law students. Having most of her other classes based on factual learning, she was quite excited to learn about critical thinking, creative thinking and to have open discussions as well as debates with others in her class.
In the first Thinking Skills class, the lecturer began by introducing himself to some 30 students before posing the question: “Why do you seek an education?”
The students were expected to write down their answers on a piece of paper after which the lecturer would categorise them – students whose answers made it into the first category would be allowed to stay in his class, while those that did not make it, would have to reschedule with the academic division.
My daughter’s answer was among those that were rejected.
“Fine, I shall give you a second chance – you may change your answers,” the lecturer said as he distributed fresh pieces of papers.
Upon checking the answers, a few students were accepted and some rejected – again. This included my daughter.
“I’ll give you a third chance now,” said the lecturer.
This time around, the lecturer decided to read their answers aloud after collecting all the answer sheets.
“I seek an education because I want to be smart and useful.”
“I want to have a good future.”
“I want to improve myself.”
The lecturer shook his head and said, “It is okay if you do not wish to change your answers. But your answers will determine whether you fit into my class or not. I will give you one final chance.”
Fresh sheets of papers were distributed one last time, and students who were not accepted began whispering to each other, asking what the correct answer should be. My daughter, being naturally stubborn, submitted the same answer, for the fourth time in a row.
With one after another claiming their seats, ever so happy to finally be accepted into the class, the lecturer was left holding my girl’s answer sheet in his hand – she was the only student not accepted.
“I seek an education because I want to be someone knowledgeable so I can gain benefit for myself, offer my knowledge to others and be useful to my society,” he said, reading my daughter’s answer aloud.
By now, my daughter had already observed that there was a pattern to the answers submitted by the others in the class. She decided however to stand by her own answer.
“If there is no knowledge in the world, what would you do?” asked the lecturer.
Puzzled, she answered, “There is always something to learn in this world, sir.”
“What if, there is no knowledge and to be someone knowledgeable is out of the question?” he repeated.
“No sir, that does not make sense. There is always knowledge around us,” she said, standing her ground.
Clearly, the lecturer was not too keen in celebrating his student’s “thinking skills” as he continued building walls around my daughter’s thinking ability with a prolonged series of questions, crafted in such a way so as to give him the answer he was looking for.
Tired, my girl finally gave in.
“I seek education for Allah.”
And just like that, she was accepted into the class.
Professor Tajuddin Rasdi was so right when he said a university’s role was to encourage students to be critical and question everything they were taught. Sadly, our education system is bent on producing students who subscribe to a certain way of thinking as clearly demonstrated by my daughter’s Thinking Skills lecturer.
In recent years, our public school classrooms have shifted from the chalk-and-talk mode to a more hands-on and minds-on teaching and learning method. With more education officers sent overseas for training on how to improve our education system, it is both sad and frustrating to know that after all their good work, our children may still end up in institutions of higher learning where they risk being denied the right to speak their own minds.
We already have too many adults walking amongst us, who are intellectually shallow, who do not question things that do not make sense, who are unable to separate emotional thinking from logical thinking, who cannot base their judgements on evidence, who confidently argue about things they know nothing about, who are reluctant to ask pertinent questions about burning issues or who lack the open-mindedness to consider new ideas and the opinions of others – and all thanks to our educators whose own thinking ability is questionable.
If our university students continue to be treated like a herd of cows, I fear they too will end up having the thinking ability of a cow.
Fa Abdul is an FMT columnist

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